Another week, another Ofsted story

My hatred for Ofsted has been well-documented elsewhere.  Below are some musings on a situation currently unfolding at a local college not a million miles away from me.  For various reasons, I’ve not shared links or names in this post, although I suppose if you know me well enough, you’ll have little difficulty in working out what I’m talking about.  I’m not claiming to have all the answers either.  Education is not always straightforward – either as an experience or an institution – and there are no easy answers.  As with most things, I think it’s a question of degree.  Group work, peer assessment, investigative work: they all have their place, but as part of a balanced pedagogical approach.  The unpleasantly dogmatic approach to favoured styles of learning (which they deny they have) from Ofsted has led us to a point where we now think we know what good teaching looks like and, actually, we still don’t really have much of a clue.  Anyway, here we go…

For those who don’t know, my local sixth form college is in trouble.  Awarded the dreaded 4 (that’s “inadequate” to you and me) by the inspectors in October, the college has received an interim report from their consulting inspector which criticises the college further on a number of issues.  It is not my intention to examine the ins and outs of why the college received the 4 in the first place.  Nor is it my intention in this post to comment on the quite understandable furore that is currently being played out in the local media and online petitions etc.  While I have never taught at the college, I did attend there in the mid-80s and know some of the teachers who are either currently working at the college or who have just left as a direct result of the initial Ofsted report in October.  For them and for many of the students, the last few months have been at best unsettling, at worst traumatic.

I have sympathy with all involved.  My own school’s Ofsted inspection eighteen months ago was profoundly unpleasant and I and my colleagues are well aware that an inspection, in which we will be required to show the improvements noted by our HMI in his two interim reports, is imminent.  The details of the sixth form college’s interim report are, however, instructive and worth highlighting.

The first point to note is that the interim inspection took place on the 15th November last year, only a handful of weeks after the first Ofsted report was published.  It seems unrealistic, then, to expect a radical, comprehensive improvement in the key areas identified by the report after so short a time.  A sense of realism, however, has never been something with which the Wilshaw-led Ofsted has been over-endowed.  The report criticises the college’s action plan for being “too long” and featuring “unnecessary detail”.  Without having access to the document, it’s impossible for me to comment on the validity of that judgement, but the comment about “a minority of teachers continuing to resist making changes to improve” struck me as particularly interesting, the word “noncompliance” in relation to teaching practice even more so.

At face value, that comment paints an image of a majority of teachers striving to improve the quality of learning for students (they’re actually called “learners” in Ofsted-speak, but the phrase “learning for learners” just sounds silly), while a stubborn rump of poorly performing teachers rejects the path of true salvation and clings to their outdated practices, letting the whole side down in the process.  It would be a persuasive picture were it not for a couple of pertinent points.

Firstly, Ofsted is, and I apologise for my bluntness, bollocks.

Its inspection practices are not evidentially-based and, while much of what it recommends has some proven validity in terms of classroom practice, because of the ridiculous pressure (competitive between sectors and between institutions within the public sector, as well as financial – particularly in the FE sector) on educational leaders, what should be presented as part of a range of pedagogical practices is instead presented as orthodoxy and dogma.  It should be obvious that, if students are being judged on their performance in written exams, placing a high value on group work is not all that clever a thing to do.  While investigative and collaborative work absolutely have their place, the skills students need to pass AS and A-level exams are more traditional: essay-writing, analysis of texts, remembering complex mathematical formulae, retaining information about the human body etc.  Making a technique that is useful in a particular context (starting a unit of work, for example, or modelling how to analyse a sonnet) the prescribed method of teaching for all lessons is nonsensical.  Even the much-maligned (by, I’ll readily admit, me as well as many others) former Secretary State for Education, Michael Gove, had his doubts about Ofsted’s fetishisation of group work, pointing out that “[t]eachers have felt they need to organise group work in which students talk to each other rather than learn from their teacher or texts. This approach is not just constricting the initiative and talent of great teachers by diminishing the power of teaching. It also runs counter to the very best recent research on how children learn.”  Perhaps the ‘minority of teachers’ at my local college are closet Gove-ites.  Or perhaps, they simply recognise that the methods they’ve been using throughout their careers still work, that they are the methods students actually want to see in classrooms, that the drive to get students to teach each other, to ‘find things out’ with the teacher acting as ‘facilitator’ runs the risk of wasting their time and energy as well as their students’.

The second point to make about that report quotation is that it runs counter to what students apparently want to see.  Comments in an online petition organized by students decry the privileging of Ofsted-approved activities in lessons and express the desire to be taught in a more traditional, didactic way.  Their reactions fly in the face of accepted Ofsted dogma.  They do not feel ‘empowered’ by talking to each other; they feel ‘empowered’ by the systematic acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills.  They feel, in short, ‘empowered’ by having in their classroom an experienced, enthusiastic professional whom they trust and from whom they are prepared to learn.  Everything else is at best superfluous, at worst a time-consuming distraction.

The third point to make is a more general one and it is a difficult one to write.  The link between ‘good’ teaching and the achievement of students cannot be accurately determined.  This, actually, is the fundamental flaw at the heart of the current inspection system.  Ofsted operates on the assumption that, if achievement is ‘good’, then teaching will similarly be good.  Similarly, if achievement ‘requires improvement’, then it must surely follow teaching does too.  One educational think tank has proposed doing away with a grade for teaching altogether in school inspection reports, as the grade for achievement and the grade for teaching vary in only 5% of cases.  In the context of an inspection system which places ever-increasing emphasis on ‘value added’ ‘expected levels of progress’, communities may well be surprised to find that the well-regarded local secondary school with a good reputation for getting its pupils good GCSE and/or A level results is not so ‘good’ after all.  David Laws, the current schools minister, has talked scathingly of ‘coasting schools’ and it is undoubtedly true that some suburban schools do need to raise their game. However, in the context of an examination system that is in upheaval (Ofqual has indicated that it won’t settle down from a statistical point of view for about 10 years), the single-minded focus on judging teaching in the light of exam results begins to look highly suspect.  How can schools be judged on exam results when, because of the reforms to GCSEs and A-levels, they have been told to expect significant fluctuations in their pupils’ performance year to year?  To be honest, though, the rigid link between exam performance and quality of teaching that has formed the theoretical underpinning of all Ofsted’s practice for the last few years was suspect anyway.  At the heart of this issue, is the question: whose responsibility is it for students to achieve?  When I took my ‘O’ levels (and failed a third of them!), it was clearly my responsibility.  Now, it increasingly looks like it’s the responsibility of the teachers.   This, surely, is not a system that produces independent and responsible students – or, for that matter, independent and responsible citizens.

An example of this can be found in my local college’s interim report which criticises the college because the inspector saw “[t]oo many learners arriv[ing] at lessons with disorganised files” before later going on to comment that “many do not remove their coats during lessons”.  While students probably shouldn’t be wearing coats during lessons, I’m not convinced that it’s the college’s responsibility to ensure that students have organized their files properly.

All of this would be funny, if individual lives and careers weren’t being destroyed.  The interim report contains a sinister line about senior managers not having taken enough steps “to remove poor practice”.  If the experience of the last term and the comments on the online petition site are any indication, it may well be the practice of teachers that students feel they learn from the most that is ‘removed’, leaving a faddish, froth-filled wasteland of group work and peer mentoring in its place.

Welcome to education in the 21st century.